Friday, January 05, 2007

Another Skirmish in the Poetry Wars

Speaking of MFA programs, John Barr of the Poetry Foundation certainly has knotted some knickers with his essay "American Poetry in the New Century," which appeared in the September 2006 issue of Poetry. In it, he argues that, "American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now," and though he is careful to say that, "the malaise that lies over poetry today has no single cause," he does call out MFA programs for their part in creating "a climate of careerism." As an alternative, he urges poets to "live broadly, then write boldly."

Not surprisingly, all manner of apologists emerged, rhetoric-ablazing. In the November issue, the reaction ranges from disgusted disbelief (et tu, Poetry?) to self-righteous scorn (Poetry as entertainment? Preposterous! Sacrilege!). From Stephen Yenser to Sidney Wade, they lay it on thick.

Now, I don't agree with all of Barr's ideas, but I'm disturbed by the mocking, absolutist response. It seems to me that the surest sign that an art (or a business, a field of study, a country) is in trouble is when its leaders cannot entertain conflicting ideas or philosophies. At the same time, I agree with several of the angry-letter writers that, judging from the many essays and general hand-wringing that takes place over it, American poetry is perpetually on the brink. Of course there is exaggeration and short-sightedness in such claims, and we are within our rights to roll our eyes at them.

But is it so impossible even to admit, like honest addicts, that we have a problem? That even some of the blame for the public's lack of interest in contemporary poetry lies with its practitioners? That academe, as the chief builder and supporter of poets today, is at least somewhat responsible? Poetry is the province of uncertainty, exploration and question. Why then do so many purport to know the answer so surely?

In her response to Barr's essay, Sidney Wade of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs declares, with the assurance of someone who sleeps well at night, that, "public neglect for poetry is not the fault of MFA programs." I suspect, however, that she, like Barr, is only partially correct. In my opinion, MFA programs and universities are at least partly to blame because they have created a kind of echo chamber for poetry that is written, reviewed, studied, published and promoted by people who share a highly sophisticated understanding of the art. No, they're not all writing the same thing, the same kind of poetry, or exclusively for one another, but they do share a similar, university-influenced perspective. It's hardly unreasonable to suggest, as Barr does, that poets who reflect a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and occupations would be healthier for the art form.

American culture has indeed changed, and changed in a way that discourages quiet, time-intensive pleasures such as reading poetry. But poetry, too, has changed. Much of it has moved away from the wide avenues of human experience and into the attics and machine rooms of language. So much of poetry today seems the product of hobbyists -- elusive, intricate, fixated on minutae. Some of this is great art, and expands the limits of poetry as we have known it. More of it is drivel. This is not to say that demanding, forward-looking poetry should not be written, taught, supported or appreciated -- only that we should be aware that there is a cost to our indulgences. In this case, that cost may be a non-specialist reader's patience (or respect).

The challenge for poets writing today is not to dumb down their work, but to be mindful that a core purpose of poetry is the communication of ideas, emotion and experience. Making poetry appealing to a broader audience doesn't entail using smaller words, but embracing bigger issues. It also requires some acknowledgement of the truth in Barr's assertion that, "Poetry... must meet a standard of pleasure as well as profundity if it is to recover its place in American culture." That line reminds me of an exchange about jazz and black culture between Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues:
  • Bleek: ".... It incenses me that our own people don't realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man."
  • Shadow Henderson: "That's bullshit."
  • Bleek: "Why?"
  • Shadow Henderson: "...Everything, everything you just said is bullshit.... That's right, the people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that."
Simple as that.

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